When I wrote about the Flappy bird thing recently, I touched on the subject of what I termed the “Internet Reality.” There’s been a lot of discussion on hatred and vitriol on the Internet in the last year but particularly in the last couple of weeks because of Flappy Bird. That fiasco has not only ramped up the discussion again but it’s caused forks of it, including several statements by prominent YouTubers on what it’s like for them having to deal with constant negative feedback and the personal toll it takes on them. The games press has also weighed in as they are wont to do, with one of the most popular articles being an editorial by Giant Bomb’s Patrick Klepek, someone I often disagree with but who is one of the few in games media to have earned the title of Journalist in my opinion.
The article is well intentioned and as one would expect, Patrick received a fair amount of vehement disagreement to it, including a vile and disgusting voice mail that I’m not going to link to for reasons I’ll get to later. I’m sure he expected that which is a sad thing to say but the Giant Bomb moderators managed to silence a lot of it and some good debate rose to the top, though it was still quite polarised.
I have two principal problems with the article, as I do with many that touch on this subject. The first is that it offered no real solutions, it just stated for the fifteen-billionth time that this is a problem that has to stop…somehow. Patrick has since admitted that failing and that some of what people have proposed in the ensuing debate has given him a lot to think about. Good on him for that, it’s more than a lot of other opinion writers would have done (take note Ben Kuchera.) My second and bigger problem is that Patrick’s stance on this issue seems to be the opposite of how most people say you are supposed to deal with trolls and bullies. He says that just ignoring these people isn’t working, that they should be publicly called out and shamed for their behaviour and surprisingly to me, he strongly insinuates that those who choose not to engage with this kind of scum are as big a part of the problem.
I take real offense and exception to both of these points of view. Trolls are simple to understand. they want attention. They want to know they’ve gotten to you. This knowledge is as old as the Internet itself. They aren’t the same as a real-life bully who often can be shut down with one good punch because they aren’t in front of you. By calling them out, you’re not shaming them, you’re enabling them. Some people will point to examples of trolls who backed down when they realised they were speaking to another real human being but for every one of those, there’s a hundred that don’t give a shit. Ignoring them isn’t a bulletproof solution either of course and there will always be a certain amount of vitriol that you will get regardless but I think it can be definitively said that trying to shame trolls only exacerbates the problem.
This sucks. The Internet’s a place where getting even slightly famous paints a massive target on your back for cowards and the mentally troubled to attack you sometimes for your point of view but often, simply because you’re there. If you want examples, see the YouTuber comments in the first paragraph. When you spend every day being attacked from all sides simply for existing, it wears down on your psyche. It’s worse when you’re the guy who made Flappy Bird, who went from having no Twitter followers to tens of thousands in the span of a few hours. Regardless of how honestly Flappy Bird attained its success, I can’t imaging the emotional broadside he must have endured. Some people do this out of a mental cry for help, others are just sick people who do it for laughs.
I’m no stranger to this either. Back in the mid 90s, when the Internet was still a niche thing for nerds, I was involved in a really dumb bit of drama in what was known as the “demo scene.” If you’re an old enough nerd, you’ll know what that is. I go into greater detail about the story in the video but basically, I pissed off some Internet people with questionable morals and it resulted in not only a torrent of e-mail hate but a very legitimate sounding death threat being left on my personal voice mail. I didn’t sleep right for days, I feared for my life and worst of all, I couldn’t do anything about it. The local police didn’t understand “cyberspace” and when I told them I was threatened by people on the Internet, they just shrugged and went “What do you want us to do about it?” This was before most people knew what the Internet was capable of and it took over a week for my terror to subside when I realised it was all just a really sick joke. That was a sobering wake up call and the sad reality is it hasn’t changed and it’s never going to change.
This is the Internet Reality.
Some claim that toxicity is worse in society now and that the Internet has made people more hateful. I think that’s nonsense. The Internet has provided an easy and anonymous means for people to say what they all think without a need to pause and consider it first but it’s stuff people have always thought. Everyone has horrible thoughts about others that pass through their heads every day. I have, you have, we all have. It’s a natural part of how our brains work and in many cases, it’s a coping mechanism. The good and considerate people know to let those thoughts be fleeting as they should be and don’t act on them. The scummier people turn those thoughts into expression, something that social media has made incredibly easy and fast to do. In my New Year’s resolution post, I committed to reduce my own contributions to that.
Stuff like what we see on the Internet now used to be sent as Letters to the Editor at newspapers all the time. Most of it got filtered out by humans but there’s no such filter online. There was also less of it because if you wanted to spew your bile, you had to sit down, write and mail a letter which was enough effort that a lot of people had time to consider and calm down. When you can post a tweet in seconds from a device in your pocket, you don’t have to take any time to ponder if you don’t care to. We’ve all had lapses. I’ve said tons of stupid, spur of the moment crap on the Internet I shouldn’t have. You likely have to. Patrick Klepek did a whole TEDx talk on this subject, in which he admitted he told a Giant Bomb fan to die in a fire for using an ad blocker. We all do it sometimes but again, the good people own it and either retract or apologise.
The problem of people taking it to extremes is never going to go away. It sucks to say but it simply isn’t. To turn the Internet into a place where you couldn’t spew anonymous hatred would not only require stripping away one of the core tenants of what makes it a free platform–something I would take up arms to defend, I firmly believe the safety of online anonymity has done far more good for the world than harm–but it would be nearly impossible on a purely technical level. You would essentially have to recreate the entire Internet from the ground up and that’s simply impossible.
It sounds reductionist to say that “people need to grow a thicker skin” and that “this is the price of Internet fame” but well, both are true. If you’re not someone who can emotionally handle Internet vitriol and who can’t stomach what Internet fame brings, then you need to either step away from it or stop engaging with the people who bring it. It sucks but this is the Internet Reality. If you want to be big on YouTube or a prominent online celebrity, then this is what’s going to happen and you cannot stop it. You can choose to not participate in social media (which despite what some say, is not nearly as required for success, whether you’re a YouTuber or selling a product) and that will certainly help but getting crap from idiots is part of the package. You can either find a way to manage or if you can’t, then you should probably pursue something else. This is something that terrifies me about my YouTube efforts. I want my channel to get popular and get a large and loyal audience but I’ve seen what popularity on YouTube leads to and as a sufferer of depression and anxiety, I really don’t know if I want to expose myself to that. Should it actually get really big some day, I’m going to have to seriously consider how much social media I want to participate in.
So I’ve spent a lot of words talking about how the core problem can’t be solved, are there ways to reduce or combat it so we at least don’t have to deal with as much of it? I do believe there are ways, two of which I think can have the most impact but who needs to step up may surprise you.
The first part of the stopgap is that those who bemoan the death of civility and the level of hate they have to parse need to lead by example. I have an immense of amount of respect for TotalBiscuit. It’s no exaggeration to say that he’s the main inspiration for why I wanted to get into YouTube stuff. You can see a lot of his ideas and methods in my videos. That said, for years, he was a colossal asshole on social media. This is something he himself has admitted many times. He engaged his trolls constantly and he frequently blurred the line between what was trolling and what was legitimate criticism, often painting both with the same brush. He was often snarky and dismissive and seemed to go out of his way to egg on the worst elements of his community. He once said in a VLOG that “I like to fight with people.” Similarly, Phil Fish loved to play the victim (and had the press playing right along with him) but he’s famous for acting as bad as any troll. In Indie Game: The Movie, which was generally fairly sympathetic to him, they even showed some of his antics on Twitter, where he frequently told people to choke on his dick and commit suicide, among many other things. He’s a genius who made a great game but his reputation as a diva and a primadonna is well earned.
People who do this kind of thing are indeed part of the problem. Sure, they would have received a lot of hate just for being them but it’s undeniable to claim that they didn’t get a larger proportion of it because it was well known that their buttons could be easily pushed. Rather than just ignore the trolls, many of whom would then move on, they sent a clear signal that the trolling was working and thus, welcome. You can’t be a bully, then claim you’re being bullied. It’s textbook hypocrisy and it only serves to make the problem worse for everyone. On the plus side, TotalBiscuit recently renounced himself from most social media, as did Phil Fish when he “left the industry.” But they are only two examples. Those in prominent positions of influence on the Internet need to lead the charge to make things better and the first way you do that isn’t by encouraging the worst of it.
The second part of this stopgap is far more critical in my opinion and gets right to the heart of the matter: The social networks themselves need to take their large share of responsibility, write strong, concrete rules forbidding abusive practices on their services and implementing policies and procedures to deal with offenders. The entire business model of these companies is to profit off of the content generated by their users and they make billions upon billions from it (well, not Twitter but they hope to.) The problem is that more volume equals more content to mine so they aren’t particularly interested in doing anything that curtails said volume. Simply put: I don’t give a shit. “Corporations exist to make money” and “It’s just business” aren’t valid excuses here and honestly, they never are. These networks are providing the vector by which vile abuse and threats on people lives occur in number ever day, they don’t get to just throw up their hands and say “We can’t do anything about it!” Contrary to what many ignorant people believe, you have no constitutional right to free speech on social media. That right only extends to government, a social network run by a private company can restrict whatever the Hell they want. Facebook, Twitter, Reddit et al. can be a part of this, they just choose not to be.
Twitter recently banned a Rob Ford parody account (though it’s since been reinstated) but told Anita Sarkeesian multiple times that direct threats on her life didn’t violate their terms of service. Facebook protects groups and fan pages for the hate organisations but banned photos of breastfeeding mothers. YouTube only allowed you to mark abusive comments as spam and with their most recent update, has made comments easier to abuse than ever. Reddit shadowbanned me for posting links to my own YouTube content because no one else would, in subreddits that didn’t forbid such a thing but protects other subreddits devoted to creepshots and moronic Internet detectives who incorrectly fingered and harassed an an innocent man for the Boston bombings, who later took his own life. And let’s not forget about all the comments sections and forums out there, most of which ignore any semblance of moderation. None of this needs to happen and none of this should happen.
A while back, there was an incident involving someone in the UK and Twitter that prompted the company to say they were going to implement a Report Abuse function. This would be different from the automated spam function in that reports would be viewed by real people and if deemed inappropriate, action would be taken, up to and including the involvement of law enforcement if the threats were real enough. As far as I know, that has never happened and there hasn’t been a whiff of it from any other social network. These companies are all massive and can easily afford the expense of setting up functions such as these and I believe they have a moral obligation to do so. Rumour is that people are leaving Facebook and Twitter in large numbers and surely a decent percentage of those just want to get away from the toxic atmosphere. Ultimately, I think one could argue there’s a good business case for implementing these measures too.
I think both of these measures implemented in tandem have the biggest potential to disrupt and reduce the Internet Reality. This isn’t a chicken and egg problem, the social networks are what came first and you don’t get to profit off all user content without being responsible for the inappropriate stuff too. If you can stop something that contributes nothing of value while also elevating that which has value, why wouldn’t you? Similarly, it’s the height of hubris to participate in the vitriol and then claim to be a victim of it. You don’t get to cannonball into the sewers with the rats and then whine that it stinks down there. If you’re popular, you have the greatest means to lead by example. Not everyone will follow it but some will and that has a far greater impact than egging people on.
That said, this is the Internet Reality and my two proposed stopgaps are just that. This is a problem that can be reduced in theory but it can never be fully solved and the sooner people start learning to work within that unfortunate constraint, the better off everyone will be. This may mean that some people with great potential will choose to avoid the spotlight and while that’s a shame, it’s the way things go sometimes. I can’t blame anyone who doesn’t have the time or emotional fortitude to deal with this and would rather just let the online idiots be what they are while they focus on their own lives. Aside from times like this, that’s how I am too. We can’t take up arms for every cause, especially those which instantly make us a target in an ultimately unwinnable war. Calling those people part of the problem however only leads to defensiveness and retribution from them and solves nothing. You don’t win allies with a “you’re with us or against us” approach, at least not permanent ones.
I empathise with anyone who has been a victim of this. I’ve been there and no one deserves it, even those who sometimes encourage it. But those who write about this stuff need to learn that it’s OK to accept certain realities for what they are.
The Internet Reality is a shitty thing that shouldn’t exist. But it can be reduced so rather than just complaining, why don’t we see how big a difference we can make, with only a few small changes?